7 Powerful Lessons in Inclusive Leadership From ExecConnect 

Last month, ExecOnline hosted its 5th annual leadership development conference, ExecConnect, which brought together 1300+ HR leaders for three days filled with interactive discussions on the most critical challenges leaders face today. 

Conversations on day 2 focused on the Power of Inclusive Leadership. Attendees heard from renowned keynote faculty like Professor Laura Morgan Roberts, Professor of Practice, University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, and Professor Brian Lowery, The Walter Kenneth Kilpatrick Professor of Organizational Behavior, Stanford Graduate School of Business. These keynote addresses, as well as the panel discussions led by HR leaders sharing best practices and insights from across the globe, provided attendees with actionable steps to apply within their own organizations. Read on for 7 powerful lessons in inclusive leadership shared at ExecConnect. 

1. Embrace and value differences

“For us to truly maximize our individual and collective potential, we have to embrace and value the differences. And this is where we have to engage our heads, our hearts, and our hands in doing this work. Engaging our head is not just acknowledging differences around us, but the value of those differences … What makes it hard work is the heart work. How do we, with our whole hearts, affirm the value of diversity? … Once we’ve committed with our hearts, then we can think about how to act to, directly and indirectly, create the climates for advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice so that everyone can thrive within the system.”

– Laura Morgan Roberts, Professor of Practice, University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business 

2. Understand how you frame discussions around inequity and inequality.

“When you frame things as disadvantage or you frame things as discrimination, often people in power think of it as charity to help out. They don’t have a sense necessarily of obligation and duty. When they think of it as they are also benefiting from that, that changes the calculus and their psychological experience of that inequity, and their commitment to supporting it comes from a different place. It comes from a place of ‘I feel like I have to deal with this because this involves me. It’s not someone else’s problem. I’m implicated in this. I’m involved. Not necessarily that I caused it, but I’m benefiting from it in a way  that requires me to do something.’”  

Brian Lowery, The Walter Kenneth Kilpatrick Professor of Organizational Behavior, Stanford Graduate School of Business

3. Create an environment where it is safe to have tough conversations.

“People have to be told that this is not going to be easy for you and you’re going to be uncomfortable … Create an environment where those conversations can happen honestly. Where people won’t be fired for saying the wrong thing if they didn’t mean to say the wrong thing, but they are going to be told that they said the wrong thing and get trained on what the right thing is to say. You can’t tell people don’t say the wrong things if you’re not going to teach them what the right things are to say. Companies that are committed to this are truly committed to helping people get better. Not just checking a box. Not just putting a bandaid. They are truly committed to doing it. They can then create an environment where you can have the conversations, and everybody can be free to say the wrong thing, in the hope that you’re getting to what the right things are.”

Janet Stovall, D&I Pragmatist, Speaker, and Award-Winning Executive Speechwriter

4. Take what your organization does best back to your community. 

“What are we doing in society? For instance, at RB a part of our compass and our purpose is that hygiene is a right for everyone. It’s not a privilege, so how do we in society make sure that our products and clean water are available? How do we make sure we are doing things to impact society so that from the very beginning, we start changing that playing field? You see companies donating more than they ever have before, which is super exciting because it’s starting to change the focus of business, not just looking internally, but looking externally.”

Christine Geissler, Area CHRO, North America Health, Reckitt Benckiser

5. Establish robust ERGs that have support from senior leadership.

“I think the importance of having a community within a community of employees that are like-minded, like-experienced is helpful when you can make the shift to have it really be a business resource group. Those communities help inform the company on strategic issues of importance … When you have ERGs that are robust, have great sponsorship and support from top leadership, and you unleash this level of innovation where they can really help inform the company, and of course, on all of these issues of social justice and how we can get it right, that’s just really self-fulfilling.”

– Margaret Lazo, Chief Human Resources Officer, Univision

6. Become a DEI catalyst even if you do not have the title.

“You can be that DEI catalyst without having the title. One of the things that we do with our diversity and inclusion groups is that they each have executive sponsors. That has been an incredible opportunity for very senior leaders in our company to show in a very concrete way their personal and professional commitment to develop leaders from within our organization, but they themselves become a DEI leader … The co-executive sponsors for our diversity and inclusion group for our employees of African descent include one of our senior white leaders and an African American young leader. They are working together and learning from each other. They themselves then become an example and a role model for emerging leaders in DEI while you’re still doing your core business duties.” 

– Kim Barker Lee, Vice President, Diversity & Inclusion, IGT

7. Recognize that the journey is an ongoing process.

“My takeaway for everyone would be that you have to go back to your organization and really look at diversity and redefine it as a domestic, emerging market. You have to look at this as a huge opportunity to future proof your organization through empathy, through soft skills, through process, and through a lot of evolution. Sometimes it’s 10,000 small changes, but the journey begins one step at a time … It’s an ongoing process where companies really have to say to themselves, ‘We can do this, but we also have to do it smartly and efficiently and effectively just like we would solve any other business problem in our organization.’”  

Doug Melville, Chief Diversity Officer, TBWA Worldwide

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